The recent arrest of a Penang-based journalist, Susan Loone, is worrying me. As a veteran journalist, I begin to wonder what sort of impact or implication the arrest will have on the future of journalism in Malaysia.
The journalist was arrested and subjected to several hours of grilling by the police before she was released on police bail. She is being investigated under Section 4 (1) (c) of the 1948 Sedition Act when she quoted Penang State Executive Councillor and chairman of the “illegal” Voluntary Patrol Unit (PPS), Mr Phee Boon Poh, who was detained after celebrating Merdeka Day, as being treated like “a criminal.”
Has Ms Loone committed an offence by doing her job? She had merely reported what she was told – which every journalist does in the course of their daily work.
Is the arrest also intended to pass a message to journalists in general? This is among some of the questions that are disturbing me. Furthermore, I am perturbed by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), National Press Club and other journalists’ organizations for keeping completely mum on the arrest. Do they condone it?
So far only the Centre for Independent Journalism has condemned the arrest and described it as “appalling”. Its director Sonia Randhawa said in a statement that it was a classic case of shooting the messenger as Ms Loone was detained for reporting what somebody else has said.
According to Randhawa, the arrest also goes against Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s claim of commitment to free debate and discussion.
I remember a similar case in 2008. A journalist, Tan Hoon Cheng, also in Penang, was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA). She had reported a speech made by a leader of a political party, which was deemed as seditious. No action was taken by the police against the politician, but Ms Tan was detained.
Her detention drew a lot of protest from the public, including politicians and journalists. Subsequently, the then Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar came up with an absurd explanation that Ms Tan was detained for her “own safety”. And, the following day she was released.
Reflecting on my years of active reporting, I began to wonder how I had survived without running afoul of the authorities even when the security situation in Perak was very sensitive. I had intensively covered security operations during the “Turbulent Years in Perak” from 1973 to 1989, during which time I was frequently reminded of the ISA.
Fortunately, the police was not as sensitive as they are now, or perhaps there was then, none of the NGOs whose only objective is to lodge police reports by the number. Otherwise, I would have been in and out of police stations and courts as some of my reports could have been considered as offensive.
Having taking into consideration the current situation, I wonder whether I should continue to do what I have been doing – expressing my views on various issues.
I am still into writing not to “cari makan”, but because I believe I can still contribute towards the betterment of the community in Perak. In doing so, I have often been described as one who finds pleasure in hitting on the Ipoh City Council.
My response to such critics has been, and will always be, that I harbour no grudges against the city council, its Mayor, councillors or employees. It is just my responsibility to the rakyat as a journalist, to highlight the shortcomings of the city council.
Therefore, since early 1990 I have been raising various issues, and as well as forwarding suggestions, not just to the city council, but also to government agencies and the private sector, in my desire to see good governance. The views and suggestions expressed are without malice or hidden agenda. They are meant to be “feedback” to the relevant authorities.
At times, it is difficult for me to draw a line between offensive and non-offensive. I fear that one day my views and suggestions can be construed as anti establishment or racial by certain NGOs.
Since a journalist can get into so much trouble by just quoting someone, where do I stand when most of the time I express my own views and suggestions?
As such, if I am to continue writing as an independent journalist, I will probably have to do so with great constrains and confine myself to just quoting those “in the corridors of power” or statements issued by the authorities.
Otherwise, should one of my columns be considered as offensive by some NGOs and police reports are lodged, I cannot expect any protection coming from the NUJ or from any press organization as I am no longer a member. I will have to face it on my own. So is there any future for me to continue?
Remember “Journalism is not a crime”!
(The views expressed by the writer are his own and not necessarily that of Ipoh Echo.)